Dominican Sisters Celebrate 150 Years in Australia

Dominican Sisters Celebrate 150 Years in Australia

On 4th September 1867, after a perilous journey of three months on a tiny wooden sailing ship, the ‘Martha Birnie’, eight brave and generous Irish Dominican Sisters disembarked in Sydney.  They immediately went to St Patrick’s Church at the Rocks to give thanks for a safe journey and ask a blessing on their new venture.

They were on their way to Maitland NSW, where they had been invited by the Irish Bishop, Dr James Murray, to found a community, and a Congregation, in his new diocese among people many of whom were part of the Irish Diaspora.  The Sisters’ ministry would be to teach young boys and young women of all classes their Catholic faith and provide them with all the tools they would need to live as good Christian men and women in the relatively new colony.

The Bishop who was coming to meet them was held up by serious flooding in Maitland.  Finally, on 9th September they boarded the paddle steamer ‘Morpeth’ and sailed up the coast and down the Hunter River, arriving at Morpeth, and travelling on to West Maitland joined by almost impassible mud roads, on 10th September 1867.  They were greeted warmly by the people of the district and taken to St John’s Cathedral for Benediction and the ‘Te Deum’. Then the Bishop accompanied them to the new convent around the corner and said ‘you are home now at last’.

Vulnerable and trusting, the women summoned all their faith, courage and Dominican heritage and adapted quickly to their new environment.  On 16th September, having obtained special permission from the Pope to leave the cloister and cross the small road, the Sisters took over St John’s National School.  By 23rd September they were ready to open St Joseph’s Select Day School for Girls in the Convent.  On 15th October some received teacher’s certificates and government salaries.  By January 1868, within purpose built premises, they opened St Mary’s Boarding School.  The first young Australian, Annie Murnane, joined the fledgeling community in 1871.

Over the next 150 years, the Community would open 21 secondary schools, 7 secondary boarding schools, open or take over 27 primary schools, 6 primary boarding schools, 11 entities for children with hearing-impairment, 2 schools for children with vision impairment and other disabling conditions, 2 teacher training institutions and a mission in the Solomon Islands, originally alongside South Australian Sisters and some friars as well as lay co-workers.  All of this accumulated ministry, which has had a profound impact on the lives of thousands of students, families and co-workers has been accomplished by just 372 professed Sisters in the Australian section of the Congregation.

Over the past 50 years, brave women have handed their educational ministry to capable and dedicated lay people well schooled in the Dominican Charism.  Sisters themselves have taken up urgent calls to live and preach the Gospel in a whole variety of ministries suited to their skills sets and circumstances, and the needs of people living on the edge of life.  Today the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands is part of the Federation of Dominican Sisters in Oceania, holds foundation membership of Dominican Sisters International and is closely associated with all the other branches of the Dominican Family in Australia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.  Currently the Congregation is made up of 78 Australian Sisters and 30 Sisters of Solomon Islands background.  We range in age from 20 to 98 years.  We are especially blessed with the wisdom of 17 Sisters over 90 and the joyful youth of 14 Sisters in formation.

How will we celebrate this significant anniversary, and give thanks to God for all that has been accomplished for the sake of the Gospel in the name of Dominic, Catherine and all the Dominican holy ones?

Our Sisters and co-workers and our schools in the Dominican Tradition, have already joined forces in their local areas to hallow the memory of the pioneer Sisters, with moving presentations and prayer services.  This was occasion for a double feast for St Columban’s Primary School and San Clemente High School in Newcastle who in the last two weeks have marked the centenary of their establishments with tributes to their founding Sisters.

On 4th September some of us Sisters will join the normal St Patrick’s Church community at the Rocks, at 10.30 am Mass, just as the Sisters did in 1867.  Our Marist brothers there will use the chalice that came out on the Martha Birnie.  Feel free to join us if you are able.

St Mary’s Campus, All Saints College Maitland will celebrate with a series of events, beginning with a Garden Party on 10th September, and followed by a Mass and Dinner later in the month.

Sisters will celebrate together in Maitland on 12th September with Mass in St John’s Church, where the Irish Sisters were first introduced to the Diocese.  Bishop Bill Wright, like Dr Murray before him, will lead us.

Another most significant celebration will take place at the end of October at our Congregational Chapter.  For the very first, and probably the last time, all the Sisters from the Solomon Islands and the Australian Sisters, whatever their age and stage, will gather first in Sydney for two days to rejoice in our common heritage, the richness of our diversity and the overwhelming generosity of our God.  The opening Mass of our Chapter will be celebrated in the presence of the entire Congregation, family members, co-workers, friends and those who have enriched our lives by sharing the Dominican charism with us.  Delegates will then move on to the decision making part of our Chapter. 

As a former Prioress said some years ago, in words equally apt for today:

“Our generation of Dominicans is called, on the one hand, to preserve the valid heritage of the past, but we must also, and this is as necessary, set up the future.  Dominic knew how to found new forms on authentic old forms.  In this way it is generally recognized that he surmounted the crisis in the world and in the Church of his time by the foundation of the Dominican Order.  In the course of centuries, the Dominican Order has meant much to the Church, especially for its renewal, and that is because Dominic wanted to mark Dominican life with two characteristics: openness to the contemporary world and courage.  We cannot rest on the laurels of our past, nor are we only responsible to the Church of today, we must also seek new ways for the Church of tomorrow.  If we work together in Dominic’s Spirit, we will be able to accomplish our part of the tasks that await us today and orient us towards the future.”

(Sr Joan Compton, Prioress General, 1978)

As we determine our future direction, we ask for your prayers that we may continue to be faithful to our wonderful heritage, grateful for the witness of those who have walked ahead of us, humbled by the support of all those with whom we share the charism.  Above all, as we reflect on 150 years, may we be blessed by the God of surprises with open hearts and hands, ready to participate in God’s future, full of hope in God’s abundant mercy and fruitfulness.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who have shared our story over these years, and continue to support us with your presence and your interest.



(05 September 2017)